THE CRITICS: Lessons of the cast struggle

THEATRE; THE MACHINE WRECKERS: Cottesloe CAVALCADE: Sadler's Wells; The actors whip up characters out of thin air, but are stranded by Mitchell's inability to weave them into a grand design
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Indy Lifestyle Online
IN A country that veers between sneering at politics and sniffing the scent of New Labour, it's a brave theatre that mounts the large-scale revival of a tough, political-expressionist classic. Especially one which dramatises the need for unionisation, the challenge of new technology and the potential of communism. The National Theatre production of Ernst Toller's The Machine Wreckers is just that.

Admittedly, it's not an easy play to sell, but when it came to finding an uplifting image with which to promote it, the marketing department clearly threw in the towel. The depressingly plain advertisements merely reproduce bald leaflet-copy about the themes of the play. Hardly likely to appeal to the home-counties mailing list.

The reverse is true of Cavalcade, Noel Coward's patriotic "musical spectacular", rarely performed since its premiere in the 1930s. The brightly coloured posters for the new King's Head/Churchill Theatre Bromley production are adorned with airbrushed photos of television stars and a cheering crowd. It also arrives trailing yards of publicity for its use of 280 unpaid extras (I'd hate to be loitering in the wings when they rush on for the crowd scenes) - that's more than the audience capacity of the Cottesloe. The National can (and does) mount large-scale plays. The Machine Wreckers has a cast of 18 - still something of a coup when all about are presenting two-handed chamber dramas like Oleanna. (Think of the lower laundry costs, let alone the wages bill.)

Like Rutherford and Son, Katie Mitchell's last revival at this address, Toller's play is a brooding drama of passion and frustration. Set in the early days of industrialisation, it opens with Lord Byron making a speech in the Lords in 1812 against the proposed bill to impose the death penalty on those convicted of wrecking industrial machinery. The action then shifts to Nottingham and the struggles of local workers, whose livelihoods are threatened by increasing mechanisation. As the result of a strike they are starving. The local manufacturer is taking on more and more child labour, and the strikers, their wives and families are growing increasingly desperate.

Into this volatile group comes Jimmy Cobbett (the compelling Colin Tierney), an idealist whose fervour persuades Ned Lud and his fellow workers to abandon their plans to save their jobs by wrecking the factory machine. His winning vision is one of unionisation, a brotherhood whereby man rises above the lot of the oppressed. Rather than fearing it, they can harness the machinery for the greater good. The workers must become its masters, not its servants. None of this comes as music to the ears of the weaselly John Wibley (Ron Cook), who has enjoyed the status of their leader and sees Cobbett as a threat to his power. As Cobbett's dream slides further and further into the future, Wibley operates a divide-and-rule policy, ultimately inciting the workers into a frenzy whereby they not only descend on the factory to attack the machine but also end up killing the supposedly traitorous Cobbett. The darkness of the design illustrates vividly the appalling conditions of the strikers, in contrast to the crisp white shirts of the owning class. On a stark, spare stage, backed by Vicki Mortimer's rust-coloured set of metal walls with a high walkway above, characters move out of the shadows to be etched in cold, hard light. Mitchell uses all this to point up the divisions between the characters. But this is where the problems begin.

It has to be a company piece. The cast all double (at least) and Mitchell has clearly worked long and hard at characterising the text. Toller, however, inspired by Marx's Das Kapital and Engels' The Conditions of the Working Classes in England, did not write a naturalistic play. Its ideas have mouthpieces - but character-driven it is not.

Actors of the calibre of Paola Dionisotti and Karl Johnson, unhelped by the clunking Twenties translation, whip up characters from thin air, but are left stranded by Mitchell's inability to weave them into a grand design. The play cries out for a bold approach, with the director standing back and developing a definite take on the material. Mitchell stages it in one of the most exciting spaces in London, but utterly fails to capitalise on the theatre's almost limitless potential.

At the climactic confrontation between the workers and the machine, she uses sound, strobe lighting and bursts of steam, throwing the focus on to the actors, who suddenly have to switch acting styles to pull off the most difficult scene of the play. To do that you need the control of stagecraft of someone like Stephen Daldry. The Luddites were naive, but they were heroic. Here, they simply look foolish. The cumulative effect is of watching a production which deals with everything in the play except communism.

Cavalcade, coincidentally, shares a few of the same ideas. It too is a history play with class concerns and a fitful wish that we should all pull together. Unfortunately, though written 10 years later, in 1931, and covering more recent history (1899-1929), it is far more dated. The central theme of pride in your country has become a much more complicated issue, and the resonances the play had for an audience who had lived through its war years have long since disappeared. The disinterred remains of this cross between a dreary, nostalgic pageant and abandoned episodes of Upstairs, Downstairs have been smothered beneath Dan Crawford's stupefying production. A case of the bland leading the bland.

Coward complained that people always assumed he had whistled the thing up in no time whereas it actually took ages to write. It certainly doesn't look like it. In a series of tableaux not-so vivantes, an upper-class Edwardian Everycouple, played by Gabrielle Drake and Jeremy Clyde in a succession of bad wigs, meet up with and lose their servants and children over the years. Songs of the period, plus a handful of minor Coward numbers, are accompanied by a hard-working Michael Lavine on the grand piano. I hope he is being well paid. The extras may well be having the time of their lives, and good luck to them, but they, and the audience, deserve far better. Ironically, the last production of the show was at the now dark Farnham Redgrave in the mid-Eighties. Even if the dilatory local funding bodies approve its submitted business plan, the chances of this small regional theatre ever finding the cash to pull off a piece of this size again are, sadly, zero. They couldn't possibly want to revive it now, but they should be given the chance to produce large-scale work. Or any work at all.

'The Machine Wreckers': 0171 928 2252, Tues to Thurs, and then in rep to Nov. 'Cavalcade': 0171 278 8916, to 2 Sept.